Debt or the Doldrums

In a week when universities have once again been slated for
their poor record in attracting students from disadvantaged areas,
sixth formers from Brigshaw High School in Castleford have been
talking to 0-19 about their future.

All are prime candidates for the government’s Aimhigher
scheme, designed to increase the number of young people from
disadvantaged backgrounds who apply for and enter higher education.
Most of their parents’ generation left school early for jobs
in or around the Allerton Bywater coal mine. But the pit closed
down 12 years ago and the local economy now revolves around
low-wage service industries.

For Martyn, university represents the chance to grasp
opportunities that his parents never had.

“Neither of my parents went to university,” he says. “But they
are really pleased that I want to go. I’ve applied to
Cambridge and the interviews are in December. It’s obviously
hard for someone from my background because you’ve got to
compete with a lot of people from public schools who are trained to
cope with things like the interviews. But it’s good to have
the opportunity to go to one of the most prestigious

Nevertheless, the decision to stay on at school rather than get
a job has meant making financial sacrifices. Martyn believes these
will balance out over time.

“It’s been shown that people with a degree earn more over
their career than people who don’t,” he says. “So it’s
worth it in the long run. But money isn’t the biggest
motivation. It’s more about taking the opportunities and
having a good career.”

The education maintenance allowance, which offers sixth formers
a means-tested payment of up to £30 a week, has also helped
soften the financial blow.

‘You’ve got your EMA and your Saturday job, so
it’s not like staying on means you’ve got no money at
all,” says Kerry. “I’d still have stayed on even if I
didn’t get the EMA though, because I want to go into the
health service and I’ll need a degree.’

For Chris, however, financial concerns are a major reason for
not applying for university. “I wouldn’t want to get that
much in debt,” he says. “There’s teachers who are still
paying off their student loan years after they’ve left uni.
So I’m definitely not going. I need to get a job and earn
some money because I’m always skint.

“I’m the only one here who doesn’t get EMA. They
base it on your parent’s income but it goes straight to you,
not your parents. Some people get it and some people don’t.
It doesn’t seem fair.

“I’m going to stay living with my parents for as long as I
can. I want a car and enough money to get a nice home before I move
out. When this lot come out of uni they’ll all be in debt and
I’ll be driving around in my car.”

“Yes,” counters Kerry. “But a few years later we’ll all
have better jobs than you and be driving around in

Chris’s decision to stay on into the sixth form had less
to do with preparing for higher education than it did with delaying
crucial decisions about his future.

“I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do,” he
says. “Most of my friends stayed on so I suppose that had something
to do with it. But it was mainly a way of putting it off for
another six months before I had to decide. I’ve never known
what I wanted to do next, I just follow my nose.

“My dad joined the police at 19. I’m 18 in a few days and
I’m going to apply for the fire service, something where
there’s a bit of action. I don’t think you need many
qualifications to join the fire service, but if you’ve got
them it helps you move up the ranks more quickly.”

Rob still hasn’t decided whether or not to go to

“I haven’t made up my mind what to do yet,” he says. “I
might go to university or I might just get a job. I want to do
something in finance. I don’t know if I need a degree to do
that, but it would probably help. I’m just going to try to
get my qualifications and apply to university then see what I want
to do. I wouldn’t want to move away though, so if I do go to
uni it’ll be Leeds or Bradford.”

This reluctance to move too far away is a common trait among
Brigshaw’s sixth formers.

“I’ve applied to Leeds so I can live at home,” says Kerry.
“I’m a daddy’s girl. I don’t want to leave home.
I think I’ll always live around here.”

“I’ve applied to Trinity and All Saints College,” says
Laura. “It’s in Horsforth [in North Leeds] which is a bit too
far to travel every day so I’d probably move out there. But
it’s near enough to come home every few days and get my
washing done.”

Only Amy appears to be relishing the chance to flee the

“I’ve applied to Liverpool so I’ll have to move
out,” she says. “I think I’d drop out if I lived at home.
I’d never get any work done. My mum would always be on at me
to clean the pots and pans or something. I can’t wait to get
away to be honest. It’ll be good to have a bit of

Ironically the all-play, no work student stereotype seems to be
far less alluring to those who are applying to university than to
Chris, who isn’t.

“I bet the social life is brilliant at uni,” he says. “Beer and
parties and you’d meet loads more mates than you do at

But to Laura the social life is just “a bonus”. “It’s not
the main reason for going to uni.”

“When I think of a student, I think of someone who’s
always scruffy and stays in bed all day,” says Kerry. “But I
won’t be like that. I am nervous about leaving school,” she
admits. “We’ve been here since year seven so it’s a bit
like leaving home.”

Martyn agrees: “It is a nervous time because the decisions you
make now will affect you for the rest of your life.”

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